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ARTICLE 19: Alarming crackdown on freedom of expression during Covid-19 pandemic in Bangladesh

  • Published at 11:28 pm May 19th, 2020
Article 19

Both journalists and members of the public must be allowed to express criticism of the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic without fear of arrest, said Faruq Faisel, regional director of ARTICLE 19

ARTICLE 19 has expressed concern over the Bangladesh Government’s crackdown on freedom of expression since beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The UK based international organization that works to protect freedom of expression and the right to information issued a press release in this regard on Tuesday.

It said there has been an upsurge in attacks on media critical of the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in Bangladesh. The government is increasingly using the deeply flawed Digital Security Act 2018 to harass, charge and arrest journalists. 

There have also been restrictions on dissent by the public. Medical professionals have been told not to talk to the media, social media is being monitored and government employees have been told not to like, share or comment on social media posts that are critical of the Bangladeshi government, the statement reads.

While the crackdown on freedom of expression has escalated during the pandemic, it also fits in a wider pattern of serious restrictions of critical voices in Bangladesh, where there are currently dozens of journalists, bloggers, and activists in prison for simply expressing their opinion, according to the statement.

“It is shocking that during the coronavirus pandemic the government is using the Digital Security Act to prevent journalists from doing their job. This act criminalizes freedom of expression and is characterized by vague definitions, broad provisions and sweeping powers,” said Faruq Faisel, regional director of ARTICLE 19.

He said: “Both journalists and members of the public must be allowed to express criticism of the Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic without fear of arrest.

“The government should immediately release all journalists and ensure that the rights to freedom of expression and access to information are respected in Bangladesh,” he added.

Surge in journalist arrests during coronavirus pandemic

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit Bangladesh, there has been a surge in arrests of journalists, activists and others who criticized the Bangladesh government for its lack of preparedness and poor response to the pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic, 16 journalists have been arrested.

Many have been charged under the Digital Security Act 2018. It is becoming increasingly difficult for journalists and bloggers to report about the crisis. As well as the arrests outlined below, in April, journalists’ movements were restricted to allegedly stop the spread of coronavirus.

On May 6, 11 people – including a cartoonist, two journalists and a writer- were charged under the Digital Security Act with “spreading rumours and carrying out anti-government activities”. 

They were alleged to have posted about “the coronavirus pandemic to negatively affect the nation’s image and to create confusion among the public through the social media and cause the law and order situation to deteriorate." Four were remanded in prison, while the others are bloggers and journalists who live outside Bangladesh.

The four men in detention are:

Ahmed Kabir Kishore: he had his phones and computer confiscated after posting a series of critical satires about alleged corruption in the government’s coronavirus response.

Mushtaq Ahmed: he published an article on the shortage of personal protective equipment for doctors.

Tasneem Khalil, the editor of Netra News: he published a leaked UN memo estimating that two million Bangladeshis could die unless immediate steps were taken to curtail the virus.

Didarul Bhuiyan, an activist with the Humanitarian assistance monitoring committee set up to monitor the government’s humanitarian activities in response to the pandemic. He published a report revealing that the most marginalised groups had received the least amount of government support.

In the same week, three journalists from Dainik Grameen Darpan in Narsingdi have also been arrested: News Editor Ramzan Ali Pramanik, Staff Correspondent Shanta Banik, and online news portal Narsingdi Pratidin Publisher and Editor Shaon Khondoker Shahin. 

They were arrested after reporting about the death in custody of a man who broke lockdown rules.

The Forum for Freedom of Expression, Bangladesh (FExB) reported that in April that “nearly two dozen journalists were attacked, intimidated, harassed, or arrested for reporting on pilferage, corruption, and lack of accountability in food aid meant for poor people who are facing extreme hardship during the lockdown”.

Coronavirus and freedom of expression

The arrests come as the government is cracking down on any critical voices on the government’s coronavirus response. Human Rights Watch reported that the government issued a circular prohibiting its employees from liking, sharing or commenting on any posts that are critical of the Bangladesh government on May 7.

The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) is monitoring social media and had by April 10 reportedly arrested 10 people for spreading false information about coronavirus.

Coronavirus and freedom of information

Public access to information during the coronavirus pandemic should be a priority to ensure people know how to protect themselves, what to do in case of emergencies and what regulations are in place. 

ARTICLE 19 in a new report, titled “Ensuring the Public’s Right to Know in the COVID-19 Pandemic,” highlighted governments’ obligations on access to information and public health under human rights law.

Reliable, accurate, and accessible information about the pandemic is essential to reducing the risk of transmission of the virus and to protecting the population against dangerous disinformation.

Amid growing criticism of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, medical personnel have been told not to speak to the media. The pandemic should absolutely not be used to silence whistle-blowers, who reveal gaps in public health planning and implementation. 

They should be fully protected from retribution. Authorities can only use sanctions against those who use the pandemic to conduct illegal or unsafe practices and threaten or harm whistle-blowers.

Governments should be transparent about the crisis and make all actions they are taking publicly available. Journalists must be able to criticize the authorities and scrutinize their response to the crisis. In addition, journalists play an important role in informing the public, the statement reads.

They can identify new hot-spots of the virus, provide information on protective measures, and expose falsehoods.

The Digital Security Act 2018 

The Digital Security Act was passed by the Parliament of Bangladesh to ensure digital security and to help prevent crimes committed on digital platforms. 

It replaced the widely criticized Information and Technology Act, which was frequently used to curtail freedom of expression. However, the Digital Security Act is even more repressive than the legislation it replaced.

It said they have documented that this year alone, a total of 60 cases have been filed against more than 100 people, including 22 journalists. This is a significant increase compared to 2019 when 63 cases were filed under this law across the country and 2018 (34 cases).

ARTICLE 19 has warned that the act is deeply flawed given its lack of clarity and overly broad definitions. It grants a carte blanche to the Bangladesh government to make rules around collection and preservation of data and suppress any critical voices. 

It lacks clear definitions, prohibits criticism of the government and criminalizes freedom of expression. It further gives the Digital Security Agency the power to block or remove online information.

Bangladeshi journalists, and national and international human rights organisations have also criticized the act. 

Amnesty International called the Digital Security Act “an attack on freedom of expression that is even more repressive than the legislation it has replaced”. Human Rights Watch said it “utterly undermines any claim that the government of Bangladesh respects freedom of speech”.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Union and the United States have all criticized the act for violating Bangladesh’s international human rights law.

International Human Rights Law

Bangladesh is obliged to ensure the right to freedom of expression, as enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the statement reads.

The rights of freedom of expression and access to information may be restricted, but restrictions must be provided by law, pursue a legitimate aim, and be necessary and proportionate. 

Responding to a public health crisis is one of those legitimate aims but that does not give countries authority to waiving freedom of expression rights in total.

Recommendations

ARTICLE 19 has issued some recommendations for the Bangladesh Government that must be implemented without delay:

The government needs to amend the Digital Security Act 2018 and make sure it is in line with international human rights law and standards.

They also need to release all journalists arrested under the Digital Security Act and end the harassment of those reporting on coronavirus.

The government also has to guarantee freedom of expression to media and social media platforms.

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